Antebellum Judaism

The arrival of a new wave of Jewish immigrants from Central Europe in the nineteenth century ushered in a new stage in the history of American JudaismJudaism is the worldview, the way of life, and the religious practice of the Jewish people, living in covenant with God and in response to Torah, the laws and ethics which guide the pattern of Jewish life. Jews today interpret their three thousand year ol... just as the SephardicSephardic is an adjective used to refer to the Jewish culture which developed in Spain and the Mediterranean, in contradistinction to Ashkenazic Jewry, which has its distinctive roots in Germany and Eastern Europe. The culture and practices of Sephardic J... Jewish community was becoming Americanized. The influx of immigrants, primarily AshkenazicAshkenazic is an adjective used to refer to the Jewish culture which developed in Germany and Eastern Europe (called Ashkenaz) in contradistinction to Sephardic Judaism, which has its distinctive roots in Spain and the Mediterranean. By extension, it now ... Jews from Central Europe, dissolved the hegemony of the Sephardim, transforming a somewhat homogeneous Sephardic synagogue-community into an ethnic plurality of Jewish subcommunities. From the 1820s to the 1870s the Jewish population of America multiplied by nearly fifty times, increasing from an estimated 6,000 in 1824 to an estimated 250,000 in 1878. The newcomers expanded existing Jewish communities and founded new ones. The first congregation west of the Allegheny Mountains was established in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1824 and the first congregation west of the Mississippi in Chesterfield, Missouri in 1837.

In this period of social and religious diversification, one of the most visible effects on the Jewish community was the breakup of the unified colonial and federalist synagogue-community into an ethnic complex of competing congregations: the synagogue-community became a community of synagoguesSynagogue, shul in Yiddish, is the most widely used term for a Jewish house of worship. Meaning a “place of gathering,” it is the central institution of Jewish communal life. The structure and role of synagogues has changed through the centuries, but .... The first congregationalThe congregational form of Protestant Christianity has traditionally affirmed the autonomy and authority of the local congregation in calling and ordaining its ministers and organizing its affairs. In the 17th century, the English Puritans introduced cong... schisms within Jewish life occurred in the leading communities of Charleston in 1824 and New York the following year. In both instances, a group of young, Americanized members of the synagogue-community requested permission to split from the main body of the congregation to form their own prayerPrayer is the vocal or silent address to the Divine. It may consist of fixed words, spontaneous words, or rest in silence with no words at all. Some forms of prayer are accompanied with specific postures or gestures, while others are not. group along more progressive lines. Their modest intentions were to reform their tradition by abolishing the practice of auctioning ritual honors, introducing vernacular language into the service, democratizing synagogueSynagogue, shul in Yiddish, is the most widely used term for a Jewish house of worship. Meaning a “place of gathering,” it is the central institution of Jewish communal life. The structure and role of synagogues has changed through the centuries, but ... administration, and adding a weekly sermon. As these reformers stressed, none of these efforts were intended to change the essentials of Judaism, but only to modify some of its external functions in order to best preserve the whole. In both Charleston and New York, reformers promoted their modifications without the benefit of religious leadership. New York’s Chevra Chinuch Nearim (Society for the Education of the Young) went so far as to state its intention to remain leaderless: “the society intends in no way to create distinctions, but each member is to fulfill the duties in rotation, having no Parness [wealthy leader of a community] or ChazzanIn Judaism, a cantor or hazzan/chazzan is one who recites, chants, or sings prayers or liturgical passages in the synagogue..” Many of the innovative characteristics of the nineteenth century American synagogue would arise from later, similar reformation impulses.

Just as religious and cultural diversity created a new era of Jewish growth and migration, breaking up the classic American synagogue-community into a community of synagogues, the Sephardic hazzanIn Judaism, a cantor or hazzan/chazzan is one who recites, chants, or sings prayers or liturgical passages in the synagogue. was now replaced by a new rabbinical figure. While there were many rabbisRabbi means “my master,” an authorized teacher or master of the Torah and the classical Jewish tradition. After the fall of the second Temple in 70 CE and the scattering of the Jewish people in exile, the role of the rabbi became very important in gat... among the new immigrants, the prototypical figure of this period was Isaac Leeser (1806-1868), a traditionalist, unordained, Ashkenazic hazzan who served a Sephardic synagogue in Philadelphia. How did a figure like Leeser so profoundly personify antebellum American Judaism? Moderate by nature, Leeser insisted that American Jews were still part of a worldwide Jewish people and that Americanization could also preserve tradition. As a leader, he was not simply a functionary of the Sephardic synagogue, but a man who set about refashioning the Jewish community by creating a myriad of new social, cultural, and educational institutions. From 1843 to 1868 he published a weekly newspaper, The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, and in 1867, he founded Philadelphia’s Maimonides College as the first American school for rabbisRebbe is the title of the spiritual leader of the Hasidim, the pietist Jewish movement which began in 18th century Poland and continues today, with its honoring of holy teachers and its emphasis on prayer and devotion., though it closed soon after his death. He also translated Jewish texts into an American idiom, including the first translation of the TorahThe Old Testament is the term Christians often use for the body of writings that comprise the Hebrew Bible which Jews call Tanakh. into English in 1845.


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